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2-La ‘Niña’: too much water?

La maldita ‘Niña‘ ha sido el karma de mi Gobierno” (The darn “Niña’ has been the karma of my government). Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia

Inundations in Colombia, source: El Tiempo

THE CONTEXT

Similar to many developing countries, Colombia faces pressing shortages in housing, particularly due to the inefficient production of low-income dwellings. Moreover, the continuing political violence and recent winter storms in the country have lead to unprecedented increase in displaced populations in urgent need for housing.

According to a 2011 study produced by Camacol, the Colombian Chamber for Construction, for the National Federation of Departments, the country needs to construct approximately 350 000 housing units per year for twenty years to eliminate the housing shortage that exist in the country. These numbers do not include the great percentage of the population that lives in informal settlements, many of which live under illegal and inadequate conditions, lacking basic infrastructure and services, and access to tenure.

Indeed the heavy storms at the end of 2010 and 2011 have resulted in severe inundations and displacement throughout Colombia. Classified some of the worst natural tragedies in the history of Colombia, the recent floods have affected close to 3 million people at national level. A great number of the affected population are inhabitants of informal developments and rural areas that have heavily flooded. Nevertheless, should we only blame the rain?

This image, taken in the outskirts of Bogotá, shows one example of cases where housing was built on former lakes that were filled in, or dried up with the use of particular vegetation. In this particular case, the rain have refilled the lake Fuque.

LA NINA

While many blame the amount of rain as a culprit of the inundations, disasters and displacement that Colombia is now witnessing, Carmenza Saldías, former director of Planning for Bogotá blames the lack of control and irresponsible encouragement of four main factors:

  • zoning
  • real estate speculation
  • The construction industry
  • The housing demand

As a quick summary, in addition to the shortage of integral water management (drainage as well as treatment), Colombia’s political decentralization has lead to a fragmentation between municipalities and an absence of coordination in zoning ordinances (Plan de Ordenamiento Territorial -POT) amongst adjacent jurisdictions. This lack of central coordination in the development and regional planning has proven to be one of the large obstacles in resource and environmental management in the country.

In addition, the situation has been exacerbated by the type of zoning assigned within municipalities and the lack of control in urban development- both formal and informal. Colombia has been witness of a common situation where zones of exception and real estate speculation have been prioritized, letting affluent developments bend rules and irresponsibly construct in areas that should protected or preserved. A parallel tale is told with much of the affordable housing and informal construction -filling the gap left by the absence of affordable housing options- which locate in areas that should have been preserved as natural reserves, or that are at risk. [Saldías, Carmenza, “Tragedia invernal: ¿lluvia o indolencia?” (Winter tragedy: rain or indolence?), November 2010).

In the middle of urgent relocation and reconstruction strategies, the ‘leftovers’ from 2010 and 2011 bring difficult challenges for Colombia’s 2012. The rain will continue to come, and rather than blame it, the country needs to find a more responsible and integral way of planning and developing, looking to prevent rather than to cure.

SEE Part 1: Going up! Electric Stairs

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